Nothing is more powerful a factor in college football than television rights.
Conferences will bend to the will of the networks (hello, late kickoffs), but schools don’t have much choice since broadcast rights are their biggest source of revenue. ESPN owns more than a dozen bowl games, and it airs 35 of the 40 bowls.
The Mountain West is currently in negotiations for its next television deal for the 2020 season and beyond. It began exclusive discussions with CBS in April, then can talk with current partners ESPN and AT&T Sports Net, then any other interested networks. The conference hasn’t announced if any future deals have been struck.
In a statement provided to the Idaho Statesman, a Mountain West spokesman said, “In response to inquiries regarding the status of current Mountain West media rights negotiations, the conference will have no further comment until such time as we are prepared to make an announcement.”
The school least affected by any change likely will be Boise State — as part of the Broncos’ agreement to remain in the conference, their home games are marketed separately. ESPN networks have carried those games in recent years, and the deal has brought Boise State $2.9 million annually in TV revenue, as opposed to $1.1 million for the other schools in the conference.
But for the rest of the league, and the games Boise State plays on the road, just about every option is on the table. Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson has acknowledged late kickoffs are a major issue. Streaming online could help remedy that, but that comes at a cost regarding access and revenue.
“We have to balance 8:30 or 9 p.m. kickoffs or tip-offs with a few extra bucks versus a digital paywall,” Thompson told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Everybody has their opinion. What I think will happen is there is going to be some compromising, and there’s going to have to be some hard decisions to get to a collective agreement.”
A glimpse into what could be next lies in the biggest competitor to the Mountain West’s hopes to be the top Group of Five conference. The American Athletic Conference inked a 12-year deal with ESPN that will pay it more than $1 billion, bumping each team’s average payout to about $7 million per year, more than triple the previous contract. Some games will appear on traditional ESPN networks, but a majority will be streamed on ESPN+.
It is unlikely the Mountain West’s deal will be as lucrative, as the AAC has more large markets in its footprint, like Houston, Philadelphia, Memphis, Cincinnati and Tampa.
Only four Mountain West games drew an audience of more than 700,000 last season, all of them involving Boise State. For the Broncos’ home games, there still is a national audience. But the road games could see some change, be it streaming or a new channel — NFL Network will air 10 Conference USA games starting this season, and Sports Business Journal reported the network hopes to strike a similar deal with the Mountain West.
Seven Boise State games this season are set to be on ESPN’s networks, four road games will be on CBS Sports Network and one game (BYU) hasn’t been announced. Next season, the broadcasts could be a little more varied.